Crazy for the white and blue
One of the many countries to stake a recent claim along the paved and potholed arrow to Santa Fe’s serviceindustry heart is El Salvador, a nation whose cuisine combines Spanish influences with the agricultural traditions of indigenous cultures that include the Pipil, Maya, and Lenca.
Attached to Days Inn, Pupuseria y Restaurante Salvadoreño gives motel guests — and anyone else willing to venture through the ground-floor entrance on the left-hand side of the motel’s looming, dilapidated white building — a taste experience beyond the surrounding burger-chain pale. Cushioned chairs and red-clothed tables occupy a casual white-tiled dining room that extends into the motel’s lobby, and large tapestries and flags celebrating El Salvador adorn the walls.
On two visits, the parking lot sat nearly empty, but a brisk takeout business and a steady trickle of cops, tattoo artists, college kids, retailers, truckers, and neighborhood retirees broadcast the signal that this kitchen’s wares are well-worth investigating.
After munching on the pupuseria’s gratis house-fried corn chips with slightly spicy green salsa, I set my sights on heartier fare. The true test of any Salvadoran restaurant is its pupusa, a staple national dish comprising meat or vegetarian fillings encased in thick, griddlecooked corn-flour or rice-flour dough. Here, they’re all made with corn flour — fluffy and chewy, and choices abound. For $7.50, three pupusas arrived with traditional garnishes: crema (like sour cream, but a bit looser and more sour) and curtido, a sweet-tangy cabbage slaw with a pleasantly piquant vinegar base. A watery-yet-delicious and tame red-chile salsa stands at the ready in an oversized squeeze bottle.
The roasted green chile and cheese pupusa packed some serious heat on my visit. I like it that way, but a little crema tames the beast if you’re in a milder mood. The pescado pupusa — in this case sporting some non-sustainable tilapia — wasn’t fishy, and the tasty flesh was shredded beyond visual recognition. Ground beef and chicharrón varieties are very delicately seasoned with Pipil spices (allspice, chile pepper). While I enjoyed both, upping the seasoning might be a good way for the kitchen to distinguish itself from the corporate Taco Bellybuster being erected just down the street.
Perhaps in a bid to appease less adventurous palates, or because it speaks to the multi-culti tendencies of Santa Fe, you can also order a pupusa filled with salami and cheese. It’s a flavorless, salty dud. Fugghetaboutit. However, loroco — a green vine and flower popular in Salvadoran cuisine — is a must-try in pupusa form. While the vines can be chewy, the floral buds impart a flavor akin to artichoke and asparagus. It’s a decent vegetarian choice here with melted white cheese, although the vines could use a little more time in the steamer or boiling liquid. An order of meaty, sweet, tender fried plantains with creamy, addictive refried beans and crema makes for a small, carb-centric meal in itself.
Try the horchata, a sweetened, rice-based drink. It smacks of true Salvadoran street food, and it isn’t a sugar bomb as it is in most other restaurants in town that serve it. A glass of sweet piña (pineapple juice) accentuates the heat of accompanying salsas, as does a glass of tamarind juice, which loses its telltale puckery identity in a sugary blizzard.
Along with sopa de pata (beef-tripe soup with corn, available Saturdays and Sundays only), specials have recently been added to the restaurant’s repertoire, and I recommend packing an extra stomach if you order one for yourself. An almost $11 takeout purchase of carne asada included 12 ounces of slightly seasoned, fatrimmed, well-done flank steak (there is no temperature variance here, it’s all cooked through), a buttered baked potato, two thick corn tortillas, white rice with peas and corn, refried beans, a small salad with a side of ranch dressing, a floppy plastic bag filled with curtido, and another bag filled with red salsa. It was all delicious, save for the rice, which was overcooked.
Service comes with a few language barriers and to-gocontainer oddities, but the staff’s enthusiasm, pride, and friendliness transcend cross-cultural awkwardness and confusion. Pupuseria y Restaurante Salvadoreño may be a mouthful to say, and it’s certainly located off the beaten path. But its lack of trendiness is exactly why it’s such a valuable and affordable gem in a self-described fooddestination city that dares to call itself different.
Pupuseria y Restaurante Salvadoreño 2900 Cerrillos Road (attached to Days Inn)
474-3512 8 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays
No alcohol Handicapped-accessible
Takeout available Free on-site parking Vegetarian options Noise level: quiet Credit cards, no checks
The Short Order If you have doubts about dining in or next to a motel, shed them right away. Attached to Days Inn on Cerrillos Road,
Pupuseria y Restaurante Salvadoreño
proudly offers a true taste of El Salvador to diners of all stripes. The casual atmosphere and come-one-come-all attitude of the owners
and servers add to the many reasons this place is fast becoming a local restaurant treasure. Recommended: fried plantains, horchata,
and loroco pupusas.
Ratings range from 0 to 4 chiles. This reflects the reviewer’s experience with regard to food and drink, atmosphere, service, and value.